Desperate to reinvigorate the long-stalled economy, the government has spent the past two years cozying up to highly skilled foreign workers through a batch of visa perks. There’s just one problem: few have been wooed.
Hoping to change that, the government passed a bill through the Diet in June to revise the Immigration Law, giving skilled foreigners a new visa status that allows them to stay indefinitely and with a broadened roster of privileges.
“Launching a new visa specifically designed for them means a lot, because that shows the world Japan is becoming more serious than ever about accepting those skilled foreigners,” said Immigration Bureau official Nobuko Fukuhara.
Questions remain, however, over whether creating the new visa alone will encourage more foreigners to move to Japan. Experts say little will change unless Japan brings its corporate culture more in line with global standards and reinvents itself as a place more foreigners would want to live in.
Under the current system, foreigners who earn more than 70 points in a government-designated evaluation system, based on criteria such as annual income, academic background and language skills, can stay in Japan under a “designated activities” visa status for five years.
During that time, they are granted a series of perks, including a fast track to permanent residency, working visa status for their spouses and the right to bring along their parents and housekeepers.
At the end of five years, they can switch to permanent residency, but would lose all the visa privileges they have enjoyed up to that point.
Since its launch in May 2012, the government-sponsored initiative to attract so-called highly skilled foreigners has trodden a rocky road. It kicked off with a grand goal of 2,000 registrants per year, but as of April 30, almost two years after its start, only 1,276 people were deemed eligible.
Of them, only 59 ended up using the program to enter the country as of the end of March, according to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, which oversees the program.
Meanwhile, under the revised law, which will take effect next April, foreigners who qualify for the points-based program could get a quasi-permanent residency visa status after three years, instead of the current five. Tentatively titled “highly skilled professionals,” people with this new visa could not only to stay in Japan indefinitely like permanent residents, but remain eligible for the perks for as long as they live here.
But there’s a catch. While permanent residents can do as they like, including nothing, those designated highly skilled professionals would have to keep working. In other words, they can’t stay if they get fired or retire. They will lose their privileged visa if they remain inactive for more than six months.
What’s more, Eriko Suzuki, an associate professor at Kokushikan University, says the visa perks themselves are restrictive. For example, while guaranteed the right to bring along their parents, the way the rule stands they must be the baby sitters of their grandchildren, up to age 7. This means they’ll have to leave once their child-rearing duties have ended.
“The implication is that the government doesn’t want those foreign parents to burden its social welfare system,” she said.
The bigger problem, Suzuki points out, is the overall unattractiveness of Japan’s corporate climate. Gender inequality, a deeply ingrained “organization-first” mindset and a tendency to overwork employees are all hallmarks of Japan’s corporations that repel most foreigners.
Wage systems are also different. However talented those foreigners might be, Suzuki predicts few employers would dare to pay them any better than long-term Japanese employees.
Making the working environment more foreigner-friendly is also high on the government’s agenda.
Several government ministries will work together to “identify problems regarding Japan’s lifestyles and working environments” and hash out solutions by the end of this fiscal year, the government’s growth strategies released in June said of the highly skilled foreigner program.
The Japanese government aims to lure 5,000 highly skilled foreigners by 2017.